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March 10, 2008

Infrastructure

Ottawa’s mass-transit plan could cost $4 billion and take 23 years to finish

Project has the potential to be the biggest in the city’s history

The city of Ottawa has unveiled its proposal for a revamped and extended mass-transit system that focuses on two light rail lines, buses, and a transit tunnel running east-west under the downtown core.

If it goes ahead, work could take up to 23 years and cost as much as $3 billion to $4 billion. It would be, by far, the biggest construction project in the city’s history.

The proposal unveiled March 3 contains several options — mostly dealing with emphasis and scheduling — whether the first big push should be the tunnel, for example, or completion of the present bus transitway system, or development of a light rail system.

What emerged at a news conference held by Mayor Larry O’Brien, however, is that the tunnel is the top priority.

Known to favour the tunnel, O’Brien said that although this option might be expensive, it would be worth the money to give the city a world-class transit system.

“We have to solve the downtown congestion problem,” he said.

He estimated that the tunnel could reduce commuting time by 15 minutes each day for many people, and improve transit reliability.

All possibilities are drawn in broad brushstrokes for now, though, with a firm plan expected to emerge after public consultations. For example, decisions must be made regarding the type of equipment that will run on the rail system. Real cost estimates are needed to replace the ballpark estimates the plan now contains.

How bus and rail systems will ultimately be integrated is open for discussion, as is a timetable for conversion of the central part of the existing transitway to light rail.

There isn’t much time. The city said in a news release that the results of the public consultations will be reported first to council’s transit and transportation committee, then by city council as a whole on May 28 for a final decision.

Even with solid estimates in place, the biggest hurdle the project faces is likely to be money.

Its prospects rely heavily on both federal and provincial cash, and that means commitments from both levels extending over a couple of decades. And that’s why, said Councillor Peter Hume, the plan has to be “rock solid,” and any demonstration of its need must be irrefutable.

Under the plan, the city’s original east-west bus transitway would be converted to light rail running from Blair Station in the east to Lincoln Fields Station in the west, with the tunnel replacing the section that crosses the downtown core on two heavily congested streets.

Costs for the transitway conversion and tunnel have been roughly estimated at $1.5 billion.

At both ends of the rail line, passengers would transfer to bus transitways for onward journeys to Stittsville and Kanata in the west, Barrhaven in the southwest and Orleans in the east.

Also in the plan is an extension of an existing demonstration light rail line that would run south past the airport to Riverside South — much like the route intended for a former proposal that was killed by council 14 months ago. There is also the likelihood of a new bridge over the Rideau River to carry another bus transitway between the south end of the rail line and Barrhaven.

The plan, with all its options, replaces the one that died late in 2006 when the federal government made a last-minute decision to withhold its contribution until a new city council voted to proceed with the plan the previous council had already approved.

That plan dealt only with north-south light rail on an alignment that would have carried it across the downtown core on the surface.

Councillor Alex Cullen, chair of council’s transit committee, said he believes the new plan is “much better than the direction the city was going in two years ago.” But he cautioned that with all the issues remaining to be sorted out, some questions might be difficult to get agreement on.

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